Harvesting Energy - A Local Economy for Locals

1. Foreword
2. Real Jobs
3. The Uses of Plants
4. Energy Stall

Does the UK Need Farmers?
(BBC Radio Programme)

Our Chance for a Revolution in Agriculture
(Reference to energy crops)
(Kent Messenger headline)

1. Foreword

The BBC programme sounded dismissive of any farming revival ('The UK needs farmers as much as it needs miners.') Not so the rather upbeat newspaper headline.

Which way is the clock turning: back or forward? Talks of a revolution would be overstating the case. This particular one refers to growing energy crops for fuel, biodiesel, insulation and building materials etc. These are also known as non-food crops.

However, what makes you think that having failed to grow our food and salads for our table we are now ready to embrace this latest worthy cause?

We further know that having some 2,300 varieties of apples in our orchards counts for very little given that barely six varieties may reach our shops.
Thus my approach to energy crops is of due caution. Farming can be the way forward but I prefer to turn my attention to people first to see what they're willing or unwilling to do. After all it's people that make things happen.
Certainly any food / non-food distinction is arbitrary (plants are ecosystems providing many yields). Certainly we know of farming methods that are far superior (all to do with human ingenuity, observation and endeavour) to current monocultures.

And yes, unfortunately, there exists a type of farming and a way of working the land that comes with a historical cachet of slavery, hard labour, famine and peasants' revolts, and organics-cannot-feed-the-world stark warnings.
But set that aside for a moment and consider how everything comes from the same soil. The same Nature. And it also comes from the same willing hands and minds, the same willing peasants, farmers, growers, doctors, botanists, educators, naturalists, and crop masters and pickers.

Engage people in meaningful activities and tasks and they will respond. Translate this engagement into real jobs and you have laid the groundwork for a local economy for locals to flourish and to be accounted for.

Let's cherish a local culture, a local tradition.

How intriguing that we have one word, culture, that applies to both the cultivation of the land (agriculture, permaculture) and the cultivation of the mind. How insensitive though to forsake one for the other.

2. Real Jobs
Energy Crops operates as a small business.
Initially it'll offer a promotional service raising the profile of energy crops. But is this enough to lay the foundation for a resilient economy? Where are the real jobs coming from?

There's a distortion in the jobs market. As a small business, I'll examine in particular this sector. Jobs can come from a healthier and more balanced jobs market.

Roughly the facts are:

a quarter of all firms may not survive their first year.

50% drop out within two years of trading.

80% within 5.

These are disturbing figures.

Whatever the causes, it ought to be said that the above is grossly wasteful of human intellect and goodwill. It tallies with our irresponsible ways with energy resources (water, electricity, heating) and physical resources (fossil oil, the Gulf Stream, the very oceans). On the jobs front, who's letting down whom? At present, it sounds like the wrong type of people eyeing up the wrong type of jobs.

So the causes, or at least the possible causes. People want out of the 9 to 5 daily grind (plus all that commuting-bashing) and out of an office ethos of fictitious targets and dressing up. You disagree with all and sundry on personal, ethical or professional grounds; want to move on; you want to be your own boss.

You take the leap, but the forgoing doesn't bode well as you get started. That ethos hasn't changed. You'll probably mix with the same crowd shuffling your feet in a tight market (retail, catering, IT, media, widgets). Business is at risk as soon as a threat looms - you put all eggs in one basket, offshoring, a superstore undercuts your goods or services.

Business failure rates are a liability. A drainage on people and resources. Some will start again, endure another bout of training and retraining, purchase new equipment, relocate … Very little however will have changed.

What do I propose? I propose step changes leading to the creation of local jobs and local opportunities. We cannot afford to move production to lower cost countries (offshoring) or package this production (refineries, power and nuclear stations, mining, manufacturing, landfills, nonocultures) in out-of-sight-out-of-mind places.

Lest we become our worst enemy and a major cause of pollution. Hence climate change. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy in that if garden furniture or parasols or bamboo coffins are produced in China, well then what do you do? They can go on the next plane, can't they?

Let me state the obvious - anybody can make furniture, parasols and bamboo coffins!

In all instances - food, timber, water, energy - a great deal can be done locally. And fear not. There won't be any slump in supplies. Natural habitats (rivers, mountains, woods, the Gulf Stream, flood plains) work for us.
They can show, if untampered with, how man, vegetation, animals, rivers and lakes, climates and microclimates, soils, niches, landforms etc can be made to influence each other in a beneficial way. If only.

3. The Uses of Plants
This is an immensely huge and absorbing subject.

You can look at it from the viewpoint of the infinite patterns, colours, shades and structures of the leaves, fruits, flowers, stems and roots of any plant, their nutritional and medicinal value, or the vital photosynthesis and carbon fixation function they perform.

According to Ken Fern, author of Plants for A Future, 'There are over 20,000 species of edible plants in the world yet fewer than 20 species now provide 90% of our food.' We're left with thousands of unaccounted for or 'less common' edible plants from around all the regions of the world.

The number of plants is estimated at 300,000. Each plant is a whole ecosystem supporting other whole ecosystems / life forms. Heather is covered next, courtesy of Owen Leyshon.

Owen Leyshon writes for the Kentish Express. His short, delightful Nature Notes more than capture the essence of my argument. The subtitle Plant's many uses says it all.

The following selection from the same article (KE, 18/08/05) allows for a few annotations.

Kent is not really blessed with extensive heather moorland landscapes so we find no nervous red grouse in south east England. … Heather is an evergreen plant which has a strong relationship with man, whether in burning to allow young shoots to grow for young grouse to feed on or the felling of trees to allow heather to spread.

It's interesting how an extensive heather moorland landscape is a 'blessing'. Also heather has with man 'a strong relationship'. The complete food web - man, grouse, young shoots, felled trees - is described swiftly as one single cycle.

The Latin name of calluna originates from the Greek word to brush and heather stems were bundled together and extensively used for this purpose. … Heather has also uses for fuel and fodder, thatch and building materials. The plant produces an orange dye and has been used to flavour beer.

Here we have a bit of Latin and Greek, which cannot be bad, and some clear indication of the range of uses of all plants. These uses will always take us back to the food chain - food, fodder - and to the provision of fuel and shelter. And how thought-provoking that so much can come from the same plant!

That's why the boundary between food and non-food crops is uncalled for.

If my impression is correct, Owen Leyshon and I harp on the same string. Plants have infinite uses and he leaves no gap in his writing. His next paragraph reads:

Apart from the affiliation with the grouse, the ripe seeds are also eaten by other bird species and the nectar-filled flowers are well used by bees across Scotland. … the calluna is the species most widespread in parts of Kent.

-----

Nature, garden and eco books must now run into millions, who knows. We take refuge in the dreamworld of such books while laying siege to the land (chemicals, GM, deforestation). The purpose of Energy Crops is to work with nature not against it.

To do that Energy Crops plans to run a number of workshops and pitch a stall, an 'energy stall' in fact, at farmers' markets and agriculture shows like any other food stall.

Energy Stall is described next.

4. Energy Stall

Venues
Venues will include farmers' markets, nurseries, community centres and agriculture shows.

An energy stall will display any relevant literature together with samples of nature crops (but shown below see also 'A Major Feature: Ecohouse').

The stall would be a small hub facilitating the contact with people wanting to offer and develop a response to today's challenges. A stall is interactive, 3D, chatty.

Timescale
A lifelong project.

· A Major Feature: Ecohouse
An ecohouse model will feature prominently in the display.
It'll show how much we can gain from the use of natural materials - thatch, straw, timber, earth (as in rammed earth constructions) as well as from good design and thinking (aspect and shelter).
Techniques to harvest rain water, wind (wind turbines) and the sun (passive solar gain, panels) will also be shown and demonstrated.

Resources Needed
The major resource needed is folks turning up.
To run a stall isn't as expensive as to run an office but the scale of the operation (the logistics, briefing, organising, manning, printing / transport) is comparable. Costs will be incurred. Some of these, it is hoped, can be met by applying to the relevant grants organisations.

Benefits
A number of benefits can be accrued from involving people direct.

There will be a sense of achievement or empowerment if 'we', the people, can harvest our food, water and, literally, our homes too! This is possible by simply making use of our renewable resources.

The stress is on 'renewables' because if we were to maintain and retain soil fertility ('indefinitely' said Lady Eve Balfour) and if we were to enter the ecosystem cycle (ie allow for habitats to replenish and settle), we wouldn't then curse darkness as we do now over depleting 'finite' resources.

These are some of the benefits we could all reap.

Workshops
Workshops have not been mapped out yet but will be in due course.

Thanking you
Please do not hesitate to call me on 01233 639 239 or:

Mario Molinari, 27a Canterbury Rd., Ashford TN24 8LD
01233 639 239 mario@ab-uno.com

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